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Technology transforms health care

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May 22nd, 2012

No one doubts that technology has exploded over the past several years, and the health care arena has been one of the places where technological advances have often been tested and used. Is it all just a bunch of gadgetry, or can some of these inventions improve health care? Some of the simpler and more straightforward technologies have certainly contributed to better care, says Cheryl Ziemba, M.D., medical director at have made patient information more accessible to doctors. With a paper record, it can be difficult to sift through all of that information; whereas, in an electronic record, it s better organized and easily available, Ziemba says. With some systems like Erickson s resident health portal, patients can also view their records and spot potential errors in their medication list, for instance. Electronic prescribing can also reduce errors. There s no poor handwriting for a pharmacist to interpret, and it s more convenient for people to get their medication, Ziemba says.

Telehealth

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, telehealth is the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance health care, patient and professional health-related education, and public health and health administration. The U.S. government has created the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth to promote the use of these technologies. Telehealth can give providers the opportunity to interact with and evaluate patients who may not be able to get to the office, says Jason Hwang, M.D., executive director of health care at Innosight Institute in Mountain View, Calif. It is meant to enhance care, not replace traditional visits. Hwang says that some home health companies and hospitals are using telehealth technologies such as in-home monitoring to check patients vital signs and other clinical information. The information can be analyzed and acted upon more quickly than if a nurse had to go to that patient s home every day to collect the data, call a physician, wait for a call back, he says.

Sensors everywhere

Several interesting technologies will emerge in the near future that will change many aspects of health care, Hwang says. Many of these employ the use of sensors. Sensors are devices that respond to physical stimuli and transmit information. When they are used for in-home monitoring, sensors can track weight, heart rate, and other common medical parameters, Hwang explains. Some companies are evaluating the use of sensors to track your gait, movement, and balance to detect problems before you actually have a fall. Refrigerator sensors are also being tested that can determine if you are eating properly. In the not-so-distant future, the way you take medication may change. Once the technology is perfected, smart pillboxes and prescription bottles will show your doctor exactly when you take your medicine, Hwang says. Even smart pills are being developed that will know when they are swallowed. These medication-related technologies can be especially useful for people with cognitive problems. One company has successfully completed a human trial of an implantable, programmable, microchip-based device for delivering medication. The device can be wirelessly controlled by a doctor to adjust dosages. It may be able to help patients who need frequent injections of medicines for conditions such as osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, or chronic pain.

Human substitutes

Doctors may soon have smart assistants in the form of computers that answer questions. One prototype, named Watson, is currently being tested. Watson will not diagnose patients but instead make recommendations and figure out probabilities of certain medical scenarios. Robots are being used more in operating rooms. When absolute precision is necessary, they can be more accurate than human hands. They also work in places besides the operating room. Hundreds of U.S. hospitals now use robots to deliver medications, meals, medical supplies, linens, or other supplies to patient units and other departments. They are programmed not to run into walls or people, and some can even use elevators. They can also talk, which makes it interesting for visitors and staff. For instance, if you bump into one, it may say excuse me, or you may hear it say what did I ever do to you? How soon will we see all of this commonly in use? Much of the needed technology is already in place, Hwang says, it just doesn t always work properly. And like many aspects of health care, we don t know how to pay for all of it yet.

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